New Dietary Guidelines on Alcohol Keep Daily Drinking Yardstick

dietary guidelinesThe federal government has stepped back from its risky proposal last year to change its recommendations on alcohol consumption in a way that could have inadvertently encouraged heavier drinking and more health problems for Americans. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a significant change to its guidelines on alcohol for its forthcoming dietary guidelines, last updated in 2005. Rather than stick with its past recommendation of limiting daily alcohol to two drinks per day for men and up to one drink per day for women as it had done in the past, an advisory committee had proposed a guideline based on average weekly consumption. 

Anyone who followed the weekly average guideline who drank every day would’ve arrived at a reasonable two drinks/day for men and one drink/day for women. But as Timony S. Naimi, M.D., M.P.H. of Boston Medical Center pointed out last year, most Americans don’t drink daily: over 75 percent drink only two to three days a week.

“So in fact,” Naimi wrote, “the net effect of the proposed change amounts to an endorsement for most men to consume up to 4 drinks and for most women to consume up to 3 drinks on days they actually consume alcohol.”

He went on to say, “Relaxing guidelines delineating ’moderate’ drinking is not like recommending someone take more vitamins. Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and causes many net excess deaths even assuming a cardio-protective effect among those with low average consumption.”

Thanks to input from public health advocates — including many of you — the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 (PDF), do not use a weekly average for its alcohol consumption guidelines after all. Consistent with current scientific evidence, the guidelines recommend up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men for moderate consumers (see page 30-31).

The new guidelines also define binge drinking and heavy drinking for the first time, stating explicitly that excessive drinking has long-term health impacts and is “responsible for an average of 79,000 deaths in the United States each year,” of which over 50 percent are linked to binge drinking.

Although the new guidelines acknowledge that some evidence suggests health benefits associated with moderate drinking, the guidelines specifically discourage anyone from starting to drink or drinking more frequently for health reasons, “because moderate alcohol intake also is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, violence, drowning, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes.”

Breastfeeding women are also given a specific guideline for the first time: up to one standard drink may be okay, so long as it is consumed four hours before feeding the baby.

Thank you, Join Together readers, for encouraging the Feds to stick with the daily guidelines. Your efforts made a difference!


More information:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 (PDF of chapter 3)


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